Skyr, a fresh acid-set cheese made from cow’s milk, has ancient origins. It was already an integral part of the diet of Iceland’s first settlers over a thousand years ago, and Icelandic families have been making it at home since time immemorial. The cheese is mentioned in medieval sagas, and traces have been found during the archeological excavation of medieval farms. Skyr was once produced with both sheep’s and cow’s milk, but from the start of the 20th century cow’s milk began to used exclusively. This is because the sheep were primarily farmed for their meat and the tradition of using their fresh milk was almost entirely lost. Outside of Iceland, skyr is little known and often confused with yogurt, though it is technically a cheese.
The traditional recipe is complex. The milk is heated to 85°C for at least 5 minutes so that the fat and casein rise to the surface. A small amount of skyr from a previous batch is then added, which acts as a starter culture, and calf rennet, if the curd hasn’t coagulated well. Everything is left to cool and coagulate, and to reach the optimal pH. The whey is then separated from the curd by straining it through a cloth. Unlike the industrial version, traditional skyr should not be pasteurized, and the cultures must come from a previous batch of skyr, not from yogurt. It is the use of these bacteria and a lengthy preparation time that differentiate traditional skyr from the industrial version. The traditional artisanal technique also results in a denser consistency and more acidic flavor.
Skyr is mostly made during the summer, but producers need to keep the cultures alive during the winter in order to restart production in the next season. In a process similar to sourdough, cultures from the previous day’s skyr are used to maintain regular production.
Traditionally eaten on its own, it is now common to sweeten skyr with sugar, and have it at breakfast or as a snack with the addition of cream or milk. Skyr is very nutritious, fat free and with a high protein content. The cheese has a range of different culinary uses and is found on the dessert menus of many Icelandic restaurants.
Currently three producers belong to the Presidium, two on the west coast, close to Reykjavik, and one on the east coast. Traditional skyr can be produced anywhere in Iceland, given that the atmospheric conditions are fairly similar all over the country.
Thorgrimur E. Gudbjartsson
IS - 371 - Búðardalur
IS - 801 - Selfoss
IS - 700 - Egilsstaðir
Dominique Pledel Jonsson